'Mad Men' Creator Matthew Weiner Talks Parting Shots, Surprise Backlash and His Cast's Move to Comedy
The Emmy-nominated showrunner also reveals that, in an alternative universe, Don Draper ran for office instead of making that Coca-Cola commercial.
A version of this story first appeared a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
In the two months since Mad Men signed off for good, Matthew Weiner has kept a relatively a low profile — only speaking about the (generally) acclaimed series finale on a few occasions. But as the AMC drama readies for a potential victory lap at the 2015 Emmys, where it is nominated for 11 awards (including outstanding drama), the creator and showrunner sat down with THR to discuss those last episodes.
Further assessing the intent of that cut-away to Coca-Cola's iconic "Hillside" commercial, Weiner also reveals an alternate endgame for Don Draper, his take on the backlash to Elizabeth Reaser's controversial waitress character, what he thinks of his cast's move en masse to Netflix's Wet Hot American Summer, and how early he knew the series would end with Jon Hamm's smiling face.
What question have you been asked the most since the show ended?
What I'm going to do next. It's become a joke with my kids. They actually ask me when I wake up in the morning.
What question have you been asked most about Mad Men?
The major question, immediately, was if Don went back and did that Coke ad. I feel like I answered it in a nonambiguous, noncryptic way by saying "yes." (Laughs.) But I didn't want to put it that way in the show, because there's no pleasure in not putting it together. It wasn't the next day or anything. But did he take something away from that experience? Did he move on, but back into who he is? He did. I do find that ad to be about improvement, some realization of the state of people at that time. It's aspirational. That's what defined "It's toasted" in the pilot. Don was not advocating this death wish or negative version of how to sell anything. He wanted to give people an idea of who they want to be even if that can't be that.
Were you surprised by the immediate speculation about whether or not he had done the ad?
I would have been surprised if there was no debate at all. But the writers and I did go out of our way to make it as clear as possible without cutting to him working on it — which wouldn't have been fun — and express the idea that some time passed in between [the events of the finale and the creation of the Coke ad]. I expected it on some level. The show was always built on people putting things together on their own.
How early did you know what that last image of Don was going to be?
The idea that he would end up at an ashram, or something like that, was with me from when I pitched AMC the first season. It was a two-step process. They liked the pilot, but they wanted to know what the rest of the show was. This was back before everybody was demanded to write their entire show before they sold it. They didn't want a bible, but they wanted to know what it would be about every week. I gave them an endgame if we got to do the whole decade. That was the image. I always imagined it would be him on a bluff somewhere, sitting in the lotus position with a smile on his face.
And when did the Coke ad come into play?
The actual connection to the idea of that ad was something that happened about four years ago, as soon as we knew we had three seasons left. The story summersault that happened in the last 39 episodes to have Don working at McCann Erickson, that was something we were working for the whole time.
Who was the first person you told about how you imagined it ending?
Probably my wife. I do know that when I wrote the pilot, I discovered that the abandoned feature that I wrote five years earlier was sort of the backstory for Don. That script ended with him running for office. I never finished it, but that's what it was. When they asked me where it was going, that's sort of where it came to. The thing that's great about working with amazing writers — and the confusing but magical idea that this is the work of many people — was that they figured out how to work to that image. And we kept looking to see that it was part of the story and that it had meaning. Part of the endgame of the series was putting Don in this Esalen-type environment. You get to harvest all of these things you built in the show — like Stephanie (Caity Lotz), who, in his mind, is his only surviving blood relative. Even though, as she said, she's not related to him at all. Having him go up there to theoretically help her, and having her leave him there, became so symbolic about his life.
How much are you rooting for Jon Hamm to win this year?
I know it's his last chance for Mad Men, but I'm always rooting for him as much as I am right now. There is no show without him. He created this character that's indelible. He physically inhabits that character in a way … that even without dialogue, he's doing a very subtle and impressive performance all of the time.
He's nominated twice. Did you see him on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt?
Of course! He plays it straight, even in Wet Hot American Summer, Childrens Hospital and 30 Rock — where I think most people realized how funny he was. I think he's funny in Mad Men. There's a scene we had this season, in "The Forecast," between him and Elisabeth [Moss]. She comes in for a review, and he's just giving her shit for the entire scene. It makes me laugh because there's a lot of Jon in there.
Wet Hot is kind of a Mad Men reunion.
I knew [John] Slattery and Hamm had booked it — but I did not expect to see Rich Sommer. There's actually a lot of our other actors and day players in there. I'm seeing a lot of familiar faces. I have to say, from the pilot on, we were always looking for people who were funny. If an actor has an ability with levity, even if you don't let them show it all of the time, you're getting so much more to write to. It's more obvious from the show that someone like Slattery or Sommer is funny — but January [Jones], Elisabeth and Christina [Hendricks] are all really funny. Vincent [Kartheiser] is hilarious. If I was casting a comedy, they are all who I would look for.
What was the most unexpected reaction from fans?
It was strange to me that we were telling the story the way we always did — and there was a bit of a hiccup between what we were doing, as writers and performers, and what the audience thought we should be doing in terms of Diana [Elizabeth Reaser], the waitress. The weird thing was that the people who were vocal about it were saying, "That's such a step backward for him." Well, that's the point. They said they didn't want us wasting time with new characters, but I think they were upset that the show was ending. I'm kind of used to it, because we had it the entire series.
Viewers seemed to get very precious about who got to share screen time with Jon Hamm.
No woman was good enough for Don. Maybe Rachel Menken [Maggie Siff], and maybe Betty Draper. Betty and Don had a special bond all of the way through, but that is such a terrible marriage that it was always shocking when people wanted them to get back together. Really? Do you want to be in couples therapy trying to fix that?
What was the most stressful showrunner moment in the final seven episodes?
Handing out the episode where Betty gets her cancer diagnosis. It had apparently gotten around that something drastic was coming. There were only two episodes left, so anything could happen. It was an emotional culmination. Permanent things were happening. And I was getting caught in a lie, because I had never told anybody in the cast when their last scenes together would be. And a lot of them had already happened.
If you could go out for a drink with any character from the show, who would it be?
That's really hard. Is it now or is it then?
I'd like to go have a drink with Sally Draper [Kiernan Shipka] right now. I feel like I might have met her, because so many of the fans, male and female, identify with her and were born within a year or two of her. Part of the fun of the show was arriving at conclusions based on literature and history and talking to human beings — and then having them confirmed as a real behavior, having someone come up and say, "That is right." I would like to know how Sally turned out. Maybe a drink would not be the best thing to have with her. Coffee?
What would you pick as the biggest misconception about the show?
That our set was really morose because the material was heavy. There was a lot of dicking around behind the scenes in every department.
Can you name the most challenging scene you wrote during the final season?
I remember, writing with Semi [Chellas], that scene where Joan goes up against Jim Hobart [H. Richard Greene]. The date that we picked for when all of this took place was so filled with explosive proof of the beginning of the women's movement. We know Joan got screwed over, and we side with her, but she's going to the head of her company and blackmailing him in a way. It became a very difficult scene to figure out what she really felt — other than "I want my money."